Body language matters. Mentors are important. Giving back is equally key. And whatever you do, don’t call your fellow female broker a ‘girl.’ Use the word ‘woman’ instead.
That was just some of the advice shared by some of the most successful women in the local commercial real estate industry during the Minnesota Women in Real Estate Summit held Sept. 23 by Minnesota Real Estate Journal and REjournals.com.
The event, held at the Radisson Blu Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, featured some of the most powerful and influential women CRE pros working in Minnesota. These women gathered to discuss the progress women have made in commercial real estate and the work they have left to do.
A common theme throughout the event? Men still make up the vast majority of commercial real estate professionals in the state. But more women are choosing careers in commercial real estate today. And just as importantly? More of these women are rising through the ranks to grab leadership positions.
This doesn’t mean that the commercial real estate business still doesn’t have plenty of work to do to increase the diversity of its practitioners, both when it comes to gender and race. But the speakers at this week’s summit were optimistic that opportunities for women are on the rise.
“There are barriers for women in real estate,” said Sonja Dusil, senior vice president with CBRE in Minneapolis. “But there are opportunities for women, too. How do you break through those barriers? My belief is that it is about advocating for yourself and those people around you whom you believe in. It sounds easy and simple. But, of course, it isn’t.”
Anne Olson, chief operating officer with Minot, North Dakota-based IRET, kicked off the conference by reading some depressing statistics. Only 26 percent of board seats on companies within the S&P 500 are held by women. That’s despite the United States seeing 38 years of more women than men graduating from college.
Olson also pointed to the latest numbers compiled by CREW saying that women make up 36.7 percent of the commercial real estate industry. This figure has been increasing, but women are still underrepresented when it comes to executive positions in the commercial real estate business.
“There are not enough women or people of color when it comes to the highest executive levels,” Olson said. “Are we moving the needle? Yes. But we are doing it slowly. It would take 23 years to achieve parity at the pace we are on right now.”
Traci Tomas, chief operating officer with Minneapolis’ Doran Companies, shared numbers compiled by the University of Minnesota showing that 22 percent of the enrollees in the university’s construction program were women. Tomas said that less than 10 percent of the people employed in the construction industry, though, are women.
Tomas expressed her hope that more women would consider a career in this field. Yes, construction has traditionally been dominated by men. But that doesn’t mean that the field doesn’t offer a good career path for women, too, Tomas said.
“There are opportunities and jobs in construction,” Tomas said. “And that’s especially true today. Construction has been deemed essential during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is work going on. There are opportunities out there.”
Mary Burnton, managing director in the Minneapolis office of Newmark Knight Frank, started her remarks with a tribute to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had passed away less than a week before the summit. Burnton said that Ginsburg broke plenty of barriers on her way to the Supreme Court.
“She was a pioneer,” Burnton said. “She was fearless. She was resistant.”
Burnton said that women today still have to display those traits if they want to succeed in the world of commercial real estate. She pointed to the commission-heavy pay structure of real estate. Taking on a job where much of your income will come from commissions is a risk. Women have to be willing to take that risk, Burnton said.
“Girls are socialized to be less risky,” she said. “Study after study proves that. It’s how we are raised. Little girls are told to be careful on the playground. Little boys? We think it’s great when they show off and take risks on the playground. Little girls are taught not to question authority. When a boy does it, we think it’s awesome.”
Dusil recommended that women draft career plans for themselves. Those plans should state where these women want to be in two or three years. Having a blueprint can help women as they navigate the commercial real estate business.
“Make that plan and write it down,” Dusil said. “It won’t go the way you want it to 100 percent. But at least you are being thoughtful. I have been in this business for more than 20 years now. I regret not being more thoughtful of where I wanted to go in the industry.”
Dusil also emphasized the importance of finding mentors. Mentors are important to anyone building a career in commercial real estate, she said. And those women who have risen through the ranks? They should give back by mentoring others.
“Being a mentor and having mentees is so valuable for us as women to move forward anywhere,” Dusil said. “And your mentor doesn’t have to be a woman. I have a mentee that is a man and a mentor that is a man. I have several women mentees. I’ve found that I gain as much from my mentees as I do from my mentors.”
Burnton said that it’s important for women to believe that they do belong in the highest positions in commercial real estate and that they should be involved in key decisions.
She told the story of working with a photographer who wanted the men in the photo to stand one way and the women another way. Burnton disagreed and refused to alter her stance.
“It’s not a man or a woman stance. It’s a power stance,” Burnton said. “Body language matters. How you sit or stand in a meeting matters.”
And when women address their female peers? Burnton said it matters who they refer to each other.
“A friend taught me the importance of calling women ‘women’ and not addressing them as ‘girls,’” Burnton said. “Once you are 18, you are not longer a girl. You are a woman. We are respected as women, not as girls We are not the calling the men in the office ‘boys.’ I implore you to use the word ‘women’ and not ‘girls.’”
Where are the new opportunities for women in construction today? Olson pointed to real estate technology. She said that technology is constantly evolving in commercial real estate, everything from virtual reality to revenue management programs. Tech, then, will be a constant source for new jobs in the future, she said.
At the same time, the commercial real estate industry has a significant rise of larger, institutional ownership, Olson said. The influx of larger companies creates more opportunities for women, Olson said, because bigger companies are more likely to seek diversity when making hiring decisions.
“The bigger companies look at hiring through a different lens,” Olson said. “It’s not the same as the guy who owns five buildings and hires his son. These are big companies with big platforms. There are more opportunities at these larger firms.”
Tomas encouraged women to enter the commercial industry. She pointed to her own firm, Doran Companies. The company has a female chief executive officer, Anne Behrendt, who also serves as Doran Companies’ president.
“If you want to encourage more women to get into this field, you have to lead by example,” Tomas said. “You have to show women how business is done. You have to be a mentor to them. You have to show them how important it is to be at the table, to give your opinion. Being an example and showing them how you succeed in this business is the key.”